Something about sitting in a taxi inspires people to unburden themselves. The stories often begin before their butts even hit the back seat. Like the confessional curtain, a cab door invites a certain sort of privacy and discretion. It’s a space apart from the everyday, a place to reflect and think aloud without the usual consequences and recriminations. In my 12 years behind the wheel I heard secrets, admissions of guilt, as well as every kind of soul-searching imaginable. I had no training in counseling— whether spiritual or therapeutic—yet over and over passengers felt free to unburden themselves. The best I could usually do was just to listen.
What do you tell a woman at 3am who tells you she can’t decide whether to stay with her boyfriend? The boyfriend who refuses to acknowledge her religion or even respect it. The one her family hates and her priest counsels her to leave. The one she loves anyway.
How about the drunk man who tells you at the end of the ride that he has no money to pay and that he’s going to go upstairs to his apartment and kill his wife, who he believes is cheating on him?
The soldier, about to be redeployed, talking on his cellphone about witnessing unprovoked killings in Iraq.
Not all the things people shared were extreme, upsetting or unsettling but most of them made me have to reckon with strangers’ lives in a way I was often unprepared for. The question I was most often left with after they’d paid and left the cab was: why did they feel so free to share?
Anonymity had to be a large part of it. Stumbling into a cab after a frustrating night out at the bars, most of them figured that they’d never see me again and thus were free to unload whatever was bothering them. The fact that there was usually a partition between us and they were looking at the back of my head, rather than facing me, probably helped as well. They couldn’t tell their friends and family what they told me because they’d likely have to explain themselves, justify their actions, apologize, or otherwise backtrack. I never made any such demands, nor any demands at all except for paying the amount on the meter at the end of the ride. Surely the sum was much less than a shrink or spiritual adviser would’ve charged them on average.
The fact that I kept quiet and let them talk likely encouraged them to keep going. I was never one of those chatty cabbies. I didn’t offer unsolicited opinions or hold forth on the events of the day. In fact, most rides in my taxi passed in silence aside from my asking where they wanted to go and thanking them on their way out. I always figured that they were entitled to whatever sort of ride they wanted. After all, they were paying for it.
I tried my best not to intercede but every once in awhile I couldn’t help myself. After listening to a sobbing woman describe in detail all the ways that her ex-boyfriend treated her like dirt, there was no way I couldn’t tell her that it wasn’t a good idea to go to his place at 5am, just because he had drunk-dialed to say he missed her. Come to think of it, I didn’t even drive her anywhere. She got in and launched into her story and we just sat there, double-parked outside her apartment building. After I talked her out of the ride, she gave me $5, got back out and went home. As I’ve mentioned before: I had no qualification to offer counsel and no way to follow up to see if anything I suggested made any difference. There was no section in cabdriver class to cover these situations.
Nevertheless—despite not signing up for it any way, shape or form—throughout my 12 years driving a taxi in Boston and Chicago, people would plop down in the back seat tell me all their troubles. I couldn’t have been the only one this happened to. It has to be something inherent in the odd public/private space of a taxi that inspires this intimacy, this longing to talk of private problems. And what do you do with these secrets, these stories that passengers have left you with?
In my case, these stories turned me into a writer.
This piece was written by guest writer Dmitry Samarov. Dmitry is an extremely talented writer and artist, if you would like to learn more about Dmitry and his experiences check out TaxiFareFinder’s interview with him conducted in May of 2013. To read more from Dmitry, visit his website: http://www.dmitrysamarov.com/.